Forces in figurative art: five game-changing names to know
Christie’s specialist Anna Touzin chooses five artists on the rise who are reshaping figurative painting — all with works in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale in London on 2 March
In June 2021, The New York Times asked 16 established artists to select an artist they felt should be better known. The hugely successful Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo, whose works sell for serious sums (and have even been blasted into space by Jeff Bezos), chose Adjei Tawiah (b. 1987).
Like Boafo, Tawiah trained at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design in Accra, Ghana. Boafo said he was drawn to Tawiah’s works because of ‘his use of authentic materials and his defined style, which sets him apart from many other figurative artists’.
Describing Tawiah’s technique, which was inspired by the cleansing of his late mother’s body in the mortuary, Boafo observed, ‘He uses sponge to clothe his powerful subjects, creating colourful, delicately textured portraits.’
Tawiah has only been exhibiting since 2020, but already landed a spot in a group show of African painters curated by another celebrated portraitist, Kehinde Wiley, at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles, and a solo exhibition at the London outpost of the Ghanaian Gallery 1957, which is on until 5 March. One critic called it ‘unmissable’.
The artist’s work was also recently photographed hanging in a house belonging to Nish McCree, a celebrated patron and collector of African art, and his painting Irony was offered in a last year’s ARTNOIR charity auction, an annual event regarded as a launchpad for African artists. It was one of the most in-demand lots in the sale, realising $13,000. The upward trend could well continue with Pink Suit, Tawiah’s first appearance at Christie’s.
The dazzling work of Japanese-born, Brooklyn-based artist Tomokazu Matsuyama (b. 1976) first appeared at auction in 2012, when one of his paintings sold for $5,000 in a charity sale hosted by MTV. Four years later, after he had joined the Luxembourg-based Zidoun-Bossuyt gallery and landed a solo show at Lesley Kehoe in Australia, his Hollow Moon Hypothesis sold for HK$225,000 — around $29,000 — at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
In May 2021 the artist’s price rocketed, when his 2011 triptych Happy Zodiac sold for HK$3.25 million (around $418,000) in a day sale at Christie’s in Hong Kong — an astonishing 713 per cent above its mid-estimate. The reason? The sale came just weeks after a well-reviewed solo show at the Long Museum’s Shanghai and Chongqing galleries and the announcement that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had acquired the artist’s 2014 diptych, You Need to Come Closer.
Matsuyama, who has an MFA in communications design from the Pratt Institute in New York, blends Japanese comic-book aesthetics and ukiyo-e prints with canvas shapes inspired by European Renaissance painters and mid-century Modernists. The figures in his pictures, he says, represent ‘the struggle of reckoning the familiar local with the familiar global’.
According to Kavi Gupta, the artist’s gallerist in Chicago, collectors already include the Dubai royal family and the hip-hop power couple turned art patrons Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys. Such strong backing suggests Matsuyama’s market shows no sign of slowing.
The self-taught Spanish artist Rafa Macarrón (b. 1981) paints cartoon-like men, women and dogs with bug-eyes, drooping heads and spindly limbs. Their twisted forms have led critics to draw parallels with the work of his compatriot Picasso.
‘I went to Paris with my parents when I was four years old, just in time for the opening of the Picasso Museum,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘I requested a notebook and coloured pencils when I entered one of the rooms. I spent the entire morning trying to comprehend what I was seeing.’
He has also said that his fascination with human anatomy can be credited to his training as a physiotherapist.
Macarrón started to gain momentum in 2010, when he was awarded the BMW Painting Award. Over the past three years, his canvases have been the subject of solo shows at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga in Spain, Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles and Allouche Gallery in New York.
In 2021, a bright orange diptych from 2019, which was included in the Allouche show, sold in a Hong Kong evening sale for HK$4.3 million (around $551,000), more than eight and a half times its low estimate — a particularly impressive feat considering it was only the second time his work had been offered at auction. Primera cita (First Date), which measures almost two metres by two metres, carries a low estimate of £50,000.
Atanda Quadri Adebayo
‘I have always been inspired by the vibrancy and aesthetics of hip-hop videos, fashion runways, magazines, and not forgetting the youthful exuberance,’ the artist Atanda Quadri Adebayo (b. 1999) said last year. ‘Vibrant contrasts are very conscious in my portraits.’
Born and raised in the Nigerian coastal city of Badagry, Adebayo attended the prestigious Yaba College in Lagos, receiving a higher diploma in painting. His portraits typically show sitters from the waist up and feature bright, patterned backgrounds that contrast sharply with the charcoal he uses to achieve their black skin tones — a material his mother used to sell to support the family.
Still in his early twenties, Adebayo is already gaining international traction. In 2021 alone he exhibited at GR Gallery and Allouche Gallery, both in New York, and had a solo show at Oneroom in London, which completely sold out.
His large portrait Let Love Lead was created only last year and its sale marks an important career milestone for the artist: his first ever appearance at auction.
Five years ago, the British painter Flora Yukhnovich (b. 1990) was still a student, working towards a Master’s in painting at the City & Guilds of London Art School. Today, with her luscious, semi-abstract reinterpretations of Rococo figurative paintings by the likes of Tiepolo, Boucher and Fragonard, she is one of the most in-demand emerging artists around.
Her meteoric rise on the secondary market began in April 2021, when her work first appeared at auction. The small oil on paper from 2018 sold for £16,500, just months after the artist had signed with Victoria Miro following two successful solo shows at its galleries in Venice and London.
Two months later she breached the million mark, when a painting from 2019 sold for $1.2 million in New York — 20 times its low estimate of £60,000. In October, a second oil on canvas by Yukhnovich appeared at auction, this time in a London evening sale. It achieved £2.3 million, almost 40 times a low estimate of £60,000.
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With another solo show planned at Victoria Miro in March, it looks like the appetite for Yukhnovich’s paintings remains strong. However, with long waiting lists anticipated at her gallery, buying at auction might be the best way to secure a work.
Study of Putti was acquired at Yukhnovich’s graduation show in 2017 and hasn’t been seen before at auction. With a low estimate of £40,000, it could provide an accessible entry point for collectors keen to acquire a work by the artist.
A second, larger picture — a reworking of Fragonard’s The Swing (circa 1767) — is being offered in Christie’s 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale on 1 March 2022, with a low estimate of £250,000. Its hammer price will be hotly anticipated as an indicator of Yukhnovich’s staying power.